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More people on the tiles as Mahjong’s popularity grows

Mahjong has been popular throughout Asia since the 1800s but, increasing, Australians are learning to love the challenge of this tile-based game.


In a light-filled room at Riddells Creek Neighbourhood HouseExternal Link on a Friday morning, there are two tables of four people sitting in front of a stack of tiles inscribed with Chinese symbols. This is session two of a course to teach them the popular tile-based game of Mahjong.

Volunteer tutor Ron Choo reminds them how to read the symbols and the rules for creating sets, or runs, which shares similarities to the game of Rummikub, then gives them time to set up for their game. They must stack the tiles two levels high in ‘walls’ before taking turns to draw and discard tiles in an effort to form a winning hand.

It looks complicated, but Ron assures me it is not. He learned to play Mahjong when growing up in Singapore, where it is practically a national sport, and he’s passionate about teaching Westerners how to play the tile-based game.

‘I started playing when I was about 10 years old, but I didn't play properly until I was in my teens,’ says Ron, who also helps with Mahjong sessions at Sunbury Library.

The game dates back to the 1800s, with various versions emerging over that time, but Ron teaches Chinese Mahjong, which is surprisingly easier than the Western version.

‘I grew up with it, but I became passionate about the game when Australian friends wanted to learn how to play. I went to university in Western Australia in the mid-1970s and all the Asian students would get together on the weekends and play Mahjong. Western friends would pop in and say, “I’d like to learn that game.” So, I taught them,’ Ron says.

‘That led me to do a lot of research to make sure that I was teaching the right thing and I’ve got back into teaching it more recently, now I’ve retired.’

Great for the brain

Mahjong is great for exercising the brain, with advanced play requiring a lot of strategic thinking. ‘You need a very agile mind and it’s great for social interaction, so I’d like to make it more accessible to more people.’

Dimity is one of the participants who has signed up to give Mahjong a go.

‘I just wanted to learn something new on and keep my brain active. I enjoy table games and I like to support anything that comes to the Neighbourhood House. There’s a lot to remember but I’m really enjoying it,’ she says.

Reviewed 09 November 2023